Book review: Griffith Review 43: Pacific Highways

By David Hill

Add a comment
Lloyd Jones compiled a 'prefects' list' of top Kiwi writers for the review. Photo / David White
Lloyd Jones compiled a 'prefects' list' of top Kiwi writers for the review. Photo / David White

Geologically, New Zealand and Australia are edging apart. The same sometimes seems to be happening in literature; it can be easier for a New Zealand writer to get published on the other side of the world than on the other side of the Tasman.

Which makes it both admirable and generous of the prestigious Brisbane-based Griffith Review to devote its latest quarterly issue to our authors.

Behind its cover of Bill Hammond's brooding birds, there are contributions from more than 40 Kiwi poets, essayists, memoirists and fiction writers. (A free e-book includes others, several of whom deserve the more authoritative - I reckon - medium of print.)

Co-editor Julianne Schultz sees this Griffith Review as a chance for Australians to change "the focal length" (neat phrase) with which they view us, and find something "rich, sophisticated and passionate". What a discerning woman.

Lloyd Jones, who commissioned the authors published here, contrasts the old image of New Zealand "on the edge of the planet and its consciousness" with a 21st century perspective of our being "a hub in a mesh of highways spanning the littoral of South America, Asia and Australia". Another perceptive editor.

Any review of a book like this becomes a roll-call. So it should, especially when contributors read like a Prefects' List of current New Zealand authors. Though everyone will find omissions to carp at and a few inclusions to puzzle over, it's a wide and deep selection.

Half of the 40 are essays or the rather condescendingly labelled "reportage". This is a volume about us as well as from us. There are the scholarly, the sparkling, the severe, the slightly staid. A few are ephemeral; a few are very clever about very little. But the execution is impressive, and the range comprehensive.

You read about our national economy, national identity/icons/literature/sport and recreation. Brian Turner wins a race and loses his temper, energetically in both cases.

Bernard Beckett has trenchant things to say about education in an increasingly non-egalitarian country. Leilani Tamu offers an elegant little memoir of being a Samoan-European 'afakasi. David Burton offers a recipe for paua with wild silverbeet and trimmings.

From Rebecca Priestley, there's an informative narrative of the inexorable contamination of our biota by oceanic hitch-hikers. From Hinemoana Baker, a meditation on cuticles and koalas.

In a fruitful encounter between academic and gloriously non-academic, Damien Wilkins tries to understand his attraction to the mercenary, messy, moving X-Factor.

Glenn Busch talks of photography and story-telling, alongside his terrific interview with a Christchurch earthquake survivor. Kate de Goldi considers Margaret Mahy, "New Zealand's most famous writer ... whose work is in many respects ardently un-New Zealand", and the orientation she provided for Elizabeth Knox.

Most outstanding? Unfair question. But Steve Braunias has one of his laconic, lyrical discourses about the last kilometres to Auckland Airport. Everything interests Braunias, and he makes everything interesting.

The very small fiction section comprises C.K. Stead's quietly disquieting narrative of twangy travellers; Emily Perkins' deftly balanced story of bonding and breaking on Waiheke; William Brandt's meticulously observed meeting.

Among the poets are Manhire, O'Sullivan, O'Brien, Geoff Cochrane (compellingly evoked by Carrie Tiffany in an accompanying mini-essay). There's also Dinah Hawking's splendid meldings of land and ocean; James Brown's potent juxtapositions; Cliff Fell's major narrative of mythology and mortality.

And as well as words, there are Bruce Foster's emblematic photos of unkempt land meeting powerful sea, plus Anne Noble's magically lit Christchurch spires.

It's an excellent album of the ways we are, love, deny, lament. It's also a marker in CIR (Closer Intellectual Relationships). Buy several copies as gifts, especially for New Zealanders resident in Australia.

Griffith Review 43: Pacific Highways Ed. by Julianne Schultz and Lloyd Jones (Text Publishing $35).

- NZ Herald

Have your say

We aim to have healthy debate. But we won't publish comments that abuse others. View commenting guidelines.

1200 characters left

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production bpcf01 at 27 Dec 2014 09:54:54 Processing Time: 530ms